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Terrorism, truth and trust – how dramaturgy informs real life

Photographs sometimes mean what they can be shown to mean. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Terrorism, truth and trust – how dramaturgy informs real life

Drama and its core principles are to be found in theatres while the real world goes on outside, right? Wrong. And recent events bear this out.

Dramaturgy is the art of managing events in time for the benefit of their greater meaning and impact: if drama is the substance of those events, dramaturgy is about wrestling them into temporal shape, of ensuring they are dramatic. It doesn’t stand outside the drama – but is part of it, invisible most of the time. Still, it plays a pivotal role.

It is important to acknowledge, for example, the Islamic State’s beheading videos were art-directed and choreographed. These choices fed the construction of a larger cognitive pattern audiences recognise as a “story”, the result of a particular dramaturgical strategy. The soft lighting. The English-language voice-over. The discrete portrayal of violence so that what we imagine is so much more shocking than what we actually see.

Dramaturgy is not confined to theatre and its ideas are often employed to organise the action of real life. The essence of these ideas is the creation of what animators call a “world”, a frame of reference in which events are interpreted in a certain way by spectators who take this to be a “natural” point of view.

One of the tricky things to grasp about dramaturgy is that while it is neither true nor false in itself, it is the indispensable handmaiden of truth and falsehood. Its evidentiary implications aren’t apparent at the start, though, when a “world” is being created.

Only with the drama underway is it possible to gauge the veracity of the apparently spontaneous acts it un-spontaneously brings into existence.

By then it is often too late to do anything about them, of course. You’ve bought your ticket and are trapped in your seat as the show proceeds to its dramaturgically-propelled conclusion.

All the world’s a stage

The greatest theorist of dramaturgy, the deepest realiser of its fecund, disturbing possibilities, is undoubtedly the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose 1959 book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life is an inspired analysis of social interaction using dramaturgical concepts: “role”, “frame”, “front”, “backstage”, “team” – and the crucial one, “performance”.

Goffman applied this perspective to many areas of contemporary life: mental health (in Asylums – 1961), disability (in Stigma – 1963) and gender identity (in Gender Advertisements – 1979). What makes his writing so compelling is that he draws our attention to a type of communication that is at once complex, embarrassing and ubiquitous.

There is no life without dramaturgy. If you don’t choose a “world” you’ll get given one by someone else. We are all involved, from pan-handlers to presidents, in the dramaturgical task of constructing the story we want the world to believe we are telling.

Muslims rallied against overnight counter-terrorism raids across western Sydney earlier this month. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

One of Goffman’s insights is that dramaturgy is not a matter of belief but of trust. When the Australian police force conducts large-scale, coordinated raids in a classic dramaturgical ploy, a “show” of force, it is not only a matter of making judgements about truthfulness. Dramaturgy structures our expectations.

Two of its common tools are tableaux of vivid action and exposition – symbolic deeds resonating beyond their ostensible purpose, and explanations that tease out those resonances for the benefit of the attending audience.

As a world gets underway, spectators move from action to exposition and back again trying to work out what’s going on, “what the story is”. And how it’s going to end. Dramaturgical ideas are time-binding ones, and the organisation of action at the start of a drama is crucial in determining both the sense and the trustworthiness of the world being virtually woven around the information – inevitably more minimal – that is actually known.

Too many old stories

Dramaturgy also has some persistent problems it can call its own.

One relates to “characters”, the human beings who inhabit a drama or are dragged into it willy-nilly. In drama, character is a doubled concept: there is the individual, the person who breaks the law; and then there is “the law breaker”, the general category they supposedly represent.

Stereotyping is not an unfortunate side-effect of the dramaturgy of everyday behaviour: it is a central part of its use. Individuals who share the same traits as the central character get caught in the same interpretative rubric. A photograph of a woman wearing a burka and holding a gun becomes an image of the “villain of the piece”.

There is little point arguing about what the photograph really means. It really means what it can be shown to mean, what dramaturgy can get it to mean in its quest for narrative shape.

Dramaturgical strategies can also fall apart at crucial times in a drama’s unfolding. “Second act problems” as they are sometimes called assert themselves when audiences are familiar with a world and better able to ascertain the status of the action presented within it.

Trust can evaporate. When weapons of mass destruction were not discovered in the aftermath of the second Iraq War it was more than another news story: it was the end of a shared belief system – the failure of a dramaturgy which, to be sustainable, needed those weapons to be discovered.

Chief dramaturge

In one of those real-life coincidences that playwrights don’t have the nerve to dream up, George Brandis is both Australia’s Attorney General and our Minster for the Arts.

Marrying those roles he is ghosted by a third: Chief Dramaturge. New laws can be made but they must also be “sold”. They must be rolled out, explained, demonstrated in situ, further explained, in a process designed both to embed them and show that they will be effective.

Attorney General George Brandis … Chief Dramaturge? AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Whether they are effective or not depends on public trust being extended so the world they legislate for comes into interpretive existence. If it is extended then the laws may be effective – perhaps so effective they rarely have to be used.

But it can work the other way too. Dramaturgical strategies can loop back on themselves and become self-reinforcing, escalating the very behaviour they are designed to excise. Under the new laws a man who wasn’t a suspect is named a suspect and interviewed by police. This event strengthens the impression that he is indeed a suspect and he reacts negatively – a response which is, of course, viewed suspiciously.

Right now the Minister needs to be as wary of bad dramaturgy as bad law-making. He needs to be conscious that Australians will be using the crap dramas of the past to determine the trustworthiness of the one being inaugurated.

Another important thing about dramaturgy: it is easy to stuff up. It looks simple but the skills it demands are delicate ones. What the dramaturge manages is nothing less than collective, ethical understanding.

“The more the individual is concerned with a reality that is not available to perception, the more must he concentrate on appearances,” notes Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He continues:

It is here that communicative acts are translated into moral ones. The impressions that the [individual] gives tend to be treated as claims and promises they have implicitly made, and claims and promises tend to have a moral character.

Indeed they do. As the minister, the government and the country decide which world best represents the truth of the emergent reality, dramaturgy sounds a warning note. We need to be as careful how we do things as what we do.

Impressions matter when the truth is hard to discern, and the future looms like a dark cloud, and you are supposed to trust those who ask for your trust – and hope to hell they are worthy of it.